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Getting the balance right

It’ been three years since I ventured out on the path unknown leaving behind the plush, mundane world of Information Technology. Since then there has been no looking back as I follow the call of my heart. The journey has been rough but the experience unfathomable, working with the indigenous communities has opened up completely new windows of my heart and soul.

I now wish to take my passion to a new level, by starting my own responsible tourism venture. This has given birth to my baby ‘Kipepeo‘ through which I wish to showcase the beauty of North East India to the outside world. Showcase not just the land which is a global biodiversity hotspot, but also its rich tribal culture which adds a pallet full of colour to this land.

My idea is to strike a balance between man and nature, needs and wants, rural and urban . By working hand in hand with the local communities I hope to bring about a better equilibrium between all the factors. Using tourism as a tool I intend to narrow the chasm between North East and main land India.

Join hands and together we will make it happen.

The most electrifying, enthralling and captivating festival of North East India.

A Chang tribe warrior

A Chang tribe warrior

Yimchungru dancers

An ornate Khiamniungam lady

An ornate Khiamniungam lady

Enjoy some more electrifying pictures from the Hornbill festival

Hunting is second nature to the Nagas, just life eating and sleeping. Hunting animals and human heads formed a core part of their culture, with many of their religious ceremonies centered around this practice. With the advent of the missionaries the head hunting practice came to an end albeit hunting of animals for food still continues. Today this practice is threatening to wipe out the sparse population of mammals found here;  the  Hornbill once found in plentiful is to be seen no more. In this perspective the village of Khonoma has set a very unique example by protecting a large part of their community forests. This Naga village is the stronghold of the Angami tribe, one of the sixteen major tribes of Nagaland.

Bumps, potholes and even larger potholes characterised the twenty kilometer stretch from Kohima to Khonoma. The apathetic condition of a road so close to the capital surprised me. The village bore a very tranquil look when I reached there in the early afternoon. Tsile, my host picked me up from the stand guiding me to his place. As we climbed up to his house I noticed that the houses   were quite dispersed unlike some of the other Naga villages I had been to. After exchanging a few pleasantries piping hot lunch was served, acting as the perfect medicine for my growling tummy.

Angami sibblings

Later that evening Tsile took me through the village explaining the cultural and historic significance of the village. In the Angami dialect the village is pronounced as ‘Khwunomia’ which is a conjunction of the words ‘Khwuno’ and ‘Mia’.   Khwuno is the name of a small plant found in plentiful around the village while Mia translates to dwellers. Geographically the village is divided into three sections called khels, namely Thevoma, Mehume and Semoma. Every khel represents one major clan, acting as the administrative and political body. Since the head hunting days each khel had their own fort to keep an eye on  their enemies. The Angamis especially those from Khonoma were fierce warriors legendary for their bravery. They fought with the British thrice, keeping them at bay for the first two times. Wading our way through the narrow village lanes we reached the house of Anguile, a basket weaver. The village amongst many other things is also well known for its craftsmanship. Anguile a two time national award recipient was transforming ordinary bamboo into skilfully woven baskets, as though there was some magic in his fingers.

Early next morning I strolled through the village moving towards the stupendous terraced fields I intended to photograph. Khonoma is very famous for its technique of terraced fields, so much so that many people have actually undertaken studies on the same. The fields are so perfectly terraced that they can make water go around in an entire circle. So fascinated were some of the British officers that they wrote eloquently about the terraced fields in their notes.

Terraced fields

Over the next few days I got to learn more and more about the conservation initiative taken by this village. Khonoma stands out amongst all Naga villages not because of its bravery or craftsmanship but because of the fact that they have banned logging and hunting in their community managed forest. In the early 90s there was rampant logging around Khonoma, mainly undertaken by contractors from the plains. At one point there were around 130 elephants being used to ferry high quality timber from interior parts of the forest to truckable points. Some of the village elders were foresighted enough to see that the intensity of logging activities threatened to wipe out their forest. They realized that survival and security of the future generation depended heavily on the forest.  With this understanding the village council laid a ban on logging in their community forest, with Tsile playing a lead role in convincing the villagers. In 1998 the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS) was formally institutionalised with a total ban on logging and hunting. Thanks to the foresight of Tsile and some of the village elders the forests are teaming with birds. The sanctuary has now become a major hotspot within the birding community.

By the end of my six days I became an integral part of Tsile’ family.  This is what I love most about my travels and working with communities, it gives me a deep sense of human relationship I can never feel in the cities. I keep finding a new home in every place I visit.

See the beauty of Khonoma

 

The first rays of the sun infuse the village with life ; a land where flowers bloom, bees hum , butterflies flutter; everything is buzzing with life beneath the deep blue sky. I am encompassed within a life force so strong that it completely sucks me in. Such is the magic of Nongeitnyang, a small village bordering the flood planes of Bangladesh. The village which is a two hour drive from Shillong , sits amongst the shadow of its more famous counterpart Mawlynnong, touted to be the cleanest village in Asia. A five minute walk from Mawlynnong gets us to this serene village on the border of Bangladesh.

 

But this image of beauty was soon to be broken as I set of on a short trek the following morning morning. The first few minutes when we crossed a few streams through the wooded forests it felt heavenly.  Though I was in for a rude shock as I walked out , finding myself in the midst of broom grass cultivation.  Most of the hills have been systematically cleared of, to make way for broom grass plantations. Only a thin periphery of forest remains, even that is under threat for firewood purpose.  Under the blazing mid morning sun we reached our first destination, Waniryang waterfalls.  It was a Jurassic Park setting, with the roaring falls circumvented by thick forests.  Bird calls resounded in the natural amphitheatre while butterflies fluttered here and there. I was transposed to Alice’ wonder land; completely lost in my own world. A light trudge from my guide got me back to reality . Under the scorching sun we continued our march to Riwai . All along the way the Peacocks and Mormons kept showing of their marvellous colours , this was a paradise for butterfly lovers like me. All of a sudden I saw a Golden Birdwing, the largest butterfly in the world , sit on a hibiscus flower beside me which got me all excited. Immediately I took out my camera and shot it to glory.

Riwai seemed quite dirty and shabby in comparison to its neighbours. A narrow path led us down to an almost dried up stream where some women were washing their clothes. Only a bit later I realized that there was some kind of a bridge over the stream, indeed a root bridge.    

Root bridge

Since their discovery in the Cherapunjee region, root bridges seem to have become quite an attraction. But it sure is an innovative way to span a narrow stream. Ficus trees are planted on both the banks, as their roots grow they are entwined around bamboos to shape them up like a bridge. It is very slow process taking about hundred years but the end result is an amazingly sturdy bridge.

The next few days I explored few of the places in pursuit of the scaly winged wonders. Every morning I used to walk through the village admiring the Peacocks, Mormons and Helens which came in the plentiful to feast on the nectar. One morning a female Cruiser decided to pay me a visit in my hosts garden. This rare visitor got me scrambling to my feet to admire its beauty. A stream just two minutes from where I was staying proved to be the best spot for observing them. The common ones like the Sergeants, Sailors, Yeomans were everywhere , though there were many that were not so common like Wizard, Dusky Diadem, Popin Jay, and the Black Prince. The prized find though were the White Dragontails. It all started with chasing a butterfly which looked a bit different. Finally it lead me to the entire gang of Dragontails which were mud puddling in one corner. What a treat they were, showing off in all their glory.

White Dragontails

 

Most evenings I would go to the rudimentary hut built by the villagers to accommodate tourists. The balcony overlooked Bangladesh, providing stupendous views of the flood planes below. The peaceful setting made it a great location to enjoy the warm colours of dusk. There wasn’t much to do once darkness overpowered the light of day. But it was the best time to chat with my host, Hamelin, on topics ranging from village life to world politics. Being a school teacher he was quite well read and open minded, with a great zeal to do something better for his village.

Finally the morning arrived when I bid a tearful goodbye to the village. Even before I walked out of the Garden of Eden, I knew I would keep coming back over here for it is one of those places where the heart falls in love instantly.

See the garden in all its magnificence

An Un-BEARable problem

In the month of November there were a spate of attacks by Himalayan Black Bears in various towns in Sikkim. All of a sudden the bears had begun to scavenge on garbage dumps invariably creating a man-animal conflict. The issue was becoming quite serious with the number of  casualties increasing and the forest department finding itself incapable of handling the situation.  Instead of trying to understand the root cause of the issue the forest department was only interested in tranquillising the bears and getting them back into the forest. this exercise proved to be an expensive one as the inexperienced Chief Conservator of Wildlife was badly mauled by a bear during this activity.

At a time when everybody seemed to be more concerned about protecting human lives rather than those of the bears , there was one person who stood out for them. My good friend and IFS officer Sandeep Tambe decided to write an article in the local newspaper to educate the people regarding the real issue. As it turned out, the issue was that there was an autumn famine in the forests because of which there was a severe shortage of bear food in the forest.  The article below finally prompted the forest department to rethink the problem with a different mindset.

Continue Reading »

The story about Chakmas, an indigenous tribe from Bangladesh, is truly a sad one. A grim reminder of our inhuman approach towards progress and development. In 1963 their native land in the Chitagonong hills was completely submerged under water, falling under the catchment area of a hydel dam. Displaced from their homeland they were compelled to seek shelter in safer lands. Being a minority community in a Muslim dominated Bangladesh, they were compelled to migrate to various pockets of North East India; mainly in Arunachal and Mizoram. Seeing their grim situation the Government of India allotted them small tracts of land for rehabilitation; one such being on the outskirts of Namdapha Tiger reserve in East Arunachal.

Namdapha, a biodiversity hotspot has the richest diversity of flora and fauna found on the Indian subcontinent. Home to such endangered species like the Hoolock Gibbon, Clouded Leopard and White Winged Wood Duck, it spreads over 2000 sq. kms in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh . The Tangsa and Singpho are the two main tribes which inhabit the area around Namdapha. Over the years the population of Chakmas in this region has grown manifold, creating a sense of insecurity within the Singpho community.  Feeling threatened by the growing numbers, the Singpho tribe has started showing animosity towards the Chakmas. There is considerable friction between them, despite the fact that both communities are Buddhists.  The problem is further complicated by the fact that Arunachal government does not provide them with a legal status, despite the fact that the government of India has now granted citizenship to the Chakmas. This has left the Chakmas completely isolated, with no economic options besides labour work and marginal farming.

From the Namdapha gate to M’Pen (10th Mile) there is a settlement of around 98 Chakma houses, residing on the banks of the Noa Dhing. Due to political issues they have been disallowed from taking admission in the public schools in Miao since the past few years.  The denial of a proper education has created further tension between the two communities. There is one primary school in the Chakma basti near 10th mile, which caters to neighboring households. The level of teaching is not all that great but the kids are extremely enthusiastic to learn portraying a genuine thirst for knowledge. To add to their woes the school gets washed out in the heavy monsoons every year, since it is only a temporary structure.

The existing school

The existing school

 

Looking at the plight of the Chakmas and the negative effect their alienation is having on the bountiful forests of Namdapha, Help Tourism came up with the idea of building a school for them. Help Tourism’ commitment to conserve and protect Namdapha since the past couple of years has been phenomenal. After all it was on their request that I came to volunteer over here for a few days. The purpose behind constructing the school was not only to provide better primary education but also to sensitize the children about the importance of conserving the forests in whose labyrinth they resided. The school would also serve a secondary purpose of being a base / shelter for researchers working in the forests of Namdapha. The project has been primarily funded by Help Tourism and is being implemented in conjunction with a local NGO SEACOW ( Society for Environmental Awareness and Conservation Of Wildlife), which is mainly into environmental education. Since many of the active members of the society are Singphos, the project would serve as an ideal platform to build up ties between the two communities.

Construction of the new school Construction of the new school

This was by far my most challenging assignment till date, despite the fact that I spent only fifteen days over here. The purpose behind working on this project was twofold;  first to supervise the construction of the school and second to interact with the Chakmas. It was hoped that my presence would speed up the snail paced progress of the construction, which unluckily did not happen. There were several challenges due to the tight budget coupled with the remoteness of the location.      It was hard to find good masons who were willing to work in this remote place under challenging conditions. Suppliers were unwilling to deliver the material to the construction site due to the apathetic conditions of the road. I myself had a tough time staying over there though my host Sudhadan tried to make my life as comfortable as possible. I really didn’t mind the very basic accommodation, or the fact that there was no electricity or having a bath in the nearby stream. It was only the food with which I had a problem, somehow I just couldn’t get used to the taste and odor of their oil. Had to make do with plain rice for all my meals rice as I had a difficult time ingesting other food stuff.

Most part of the morning I used to spend at the site, trying to help out in whatever limited way I could. Watering the pillars, nailing planks together, anything to garner a greater sense of responsibility within the local people. To escape from the mid afternoon heat I used to go for a walk within the cooling canopy of the rain forest which was pulsating with life. The hooping Gibbons, chirping birds, fluttering butterflies and mysterious insects, welcoming me in their surreal world. Time would begin to drag as the evening sun gave way to the night. In the cool breeze of dusk Sudhadan and I would sit beside a small fire talking over the happenings of the day.

Sudhadan with his family Sudhadan with his family

A good deal of my day was spent in speaking to Chakmas from various age groups. Most of them understood Hindi so it was easy to make conversation with them. The elders I mostly questioned on their past history, to comprehend the difficulties they had gone through. Their tales were always those of infinite strife, but the amazing thing was that they never gave up, always fought back the challenges with staunch determination. Albeit, all of them wanted a better future for their children. With the younger generation it was more about their hopes and dreams. Their keen determination to get a good education so that they could move up in life.

The school is just the first step in creating a harmonious relationship between the Chakmas and their neighboring communities. Though a good education is imperative, the importance of economic options cannot be undermined. In my opinion all measures would fail without providing them with adequate economic opportunities. In this regard much more work needs to be done in the coming years.

This is a continuation of my previous post regarding MMES. For those who haven’t please read that post first

 

I left for Assam within a week of the tragic terror attacks in Mumbai. This naturally got my family and friends jittery as Assam itself did not have a very good reputation for being a safe place. Frankly I was a bit nervous too as I had no idea what the current situation was in the Bodo dominated area of Manas NP. Nonetheless I continued as I knew that outside perception was bound to be obscured, and the reason why I chose to travel to the North East in the first place was to eradicate these perceptions. The journey was a long arduous one, with the last leg from Pathsala to the remote village of Lwkhi Bazaar being the most exciting one. As is the case in any remote part of India the bus was choco block with people carrying paraphernalia of all imaginable type. Everything from vegetables, to livestock, dish antenna to bed were squeezed into the overflowing bus. I was amazed that the rickety bus hadn’t come apart yet. The apathetic condition of the road added more adventure to our journey, especially when the bus was near about to topple forcing everybody to do an emergency evacuation. After four painful hours and a couple of emergency evacuations I reached finally reached Lwkhi Bazzar, my home for the next three months.

The first ten days were truly a testing period for me. Since all the volunteers were busy with their own work I was left to get bored on my own. There were times when I felt that I was simply wasting my time over here and that I should just leave from this place to travel somewhere else. Irregular meal timings, no breakfasts, short days, even the smallest factors became a battle with the self.  The only saving grace at this point of time was my inclination towards butterflies. I spent most of my mornings walking in the forest, observing and photographing butterflies. These multi coloured winged beauties simply captivated me. In the evenings at least I had company, as everybody would gather at the office to chat about the happenings of the day. Quite a few of us used to stay together at their guesthouse cum office so it was always lively during night time.

Things picked up steam after my first formal meeting with the cabinet members of the NGO. After a brief introduction from both sides it was decided that I would teach computers to the NGO staff, formalize their accountancy system and initiate the kids at a nearby school to the world of computers, during my stay over here. From the following week I started my nouveau venture of introducing the kids to the wired world. In the initial stages language barrier posed bit of a challenge, but as the classes progressed we understood each other quite well. Once they were comfortable with the mouse, they were absolutely thrilled to be able to draw and play games on the computer, always looking forward to their morning class. It was an enriching experience for me as well as for them.  Frankly teaching the NGO staff basic computers proved to be the bigger challenge. I literally had to coax them to sit and learn computers with me, and even towards the end remained unsuccessful at that.  

By this time I had broken the ice with the NGO volunteers, winning over their complete trust. Our friendship bonds strengthened daily, making them to treat me like a family member . I found it hard to believe that at one point of time these very people were dreaded insurgents, albeit out of desperate circumstances. Today though you can see a complete transformation in them , having returned back to their cultural way of life. They are such a warm and friendly community that it’ a pity the outside world still has negative perceptions about the Bodos.  At about this time I started visiting their protection camps in the national park with my good friend Kalen. This presented me with a great opportunity to travel extensively in the park .The Dewmari camp situated in the lap of the Bhutan hills soon became my favourite one. Whenever there was an opportunity I would go to Dewmari , from where I would trek to the Bhutan hills with one of their guards.  One such trip to their western most camp of Kahitema proved to be an adventurous one. While on our way back after picking up some of the conservation guards, a drunkard cyclist was standing in the middle of a narrow bend. Despite seeing us approach he stood planted in the middle as a result our driver had to swerve the Tata Mobile at the very last minute. In slow motion our Tata Mobile toppled to the left side as we helplessly tossed inside. Luckily there were some banana trees on the periphery which broke our fall and not our bones. All of us were lucky enough to come out unscratched. Thirty minutes of pushing and grunting got the Tata Mobile back on all its fours. As though this wasn’t enough the gearbox started giving us some problems , further down the road. At one point we were going to abandon our vehicle, requesting another vehicle to pick us up. But our resourceful driver managed to temporarily fix the issue, albeit the vehicle had to be driven only in the second gear.

New Year' party

New Year' party

Being peak tourist season I often found myself in the company of tourists. It was always an interesting affair to interact with them , exchanging our thoughts and ideas besides a warm log fire. On a few occasions the dance troupe would showcase their cultural dances enthralling the audiences. The welcome dance, the butterfly dance, the warrior dance , each one having it’ own story and significance. Sometimes members of other NGOs who were working in that area would also stay at the Jungle Camp. Most of them became very fast friends and useful contacts for working on other projects in the North East.  Forged an especially deep friendship with Dilip, who was doing a commendable job of grooming the youth of Assam to start their own business. He used to have training programs in places from where ULFA were recruiting cadets, so that the youth could channel their energies to more constructive use.

This was the first time I was ever working with a community at a grassroots level. It was a completely different ball game from the maniacal ways of the corporate world. Sometimes working with the communities would mean sitting down and chatting over endless cups of tea. This would not amount to work in the corporate world but is extremely important for bonding and understanding the ways of the community. I soon learnt that planning for work was an exercise in futility causing tons of frustration. When working with them it was necessary to have a more fluid approach to work by dynamically altering the time, quantum and methodology of work. It was pointless to have any expectations either from myself or from them, the only thing that mattered was to work with them. While teaching the kids I continuously had to be innovative as I had to overcome not only the teaching barrier but also the communication barrier. I absolutely loved being in their company and enjoyed teaching them the most. In comparison teaching computers to the NGO staff turned out to be an uphill task, having to expend most of my energy in motivating them.

The school kids

The school kids

My three month stint did teach me a lot of things, especially about my own self. It gave me ample opportunity to observe my emotions and feelings, getting to know myself in a better way. This is the type of work I really enjoy doing and will continue to do, never casting a backward glance at the corporate world. I know that this is just the beginning of my relationship with these wonderful people for I will continue coming to Manas to work and live with them.